Jews flock to Tunisia’s Djerba in another illustration of religious tolerance

As this year’s Jewish pilgrimage coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Muslims, Jews and European visitors were treated to an iftar dinner.
Sunday 26/05/2019
A Jewish pilgrim lights a candle on the second day of the annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, May 22. (AFP)
Candles of hope. A Jewish pilgrim lights a candle on the second day of the annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, May 22. (AFP)

DJERBA - The annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s southern island of Djerba offers an opportunity for the government of the region’s only democracy to reaffirm it remains a land of tolerance and openness.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed visited El Ghriba on May 22 in the company of Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi, who hails from Djerba’s Jewish community. The estimated 1,000 Jews of Djerba have their own living district and schools.

Rabbis from several European countries as well as other foreign guests, some of whom were born in Djerba, joined 5,000 Jewish pilgrims.

Security was very tight, as elsewhere in Tunisia. Security measures implemented since the terrorist attacks of 2015 on the beach resort of Sousse and the Bardo National Museum ensured that the risk of a repeat incident is kept to a minimum. Many experts see security risks in Tunisia today as no greater than in major European cities.

However, Tunisian authorities might have erred in showing off the security measures. Pictures of men in balaclavas all around gave the unnecessary impression of a country under siege.

Nothing could be further from the truth in Tunisia today. Despite the civil war raging in neighbouring Libya, Tunisian counterterrorism forces have retaken the initiative since the 2015 terrorism incidents, which had claimed the lives of scores of foreign tourists. Security forces are better-trained and better-equipped and maintain close cooperation with European and US counterparts.

Djerba, which hosts many tourists in hotels strung out along the coast, is an island where many of the inhabitants are from the very tolerant Muslim Ibadi minority. Djerba’s Muslim majority inhabitants are generally conservative, well-educated and excellent businessmen and have lived alongside their Jewish neighbours.

Tradition has it that Jews arrived in Djerba after the first destruction of the temple in Babylon more than 2,500 years ago. As elsewhere in Tunisia, Muslims defended their Jewish friends and neighbours during the six months of German occupation during the second world war, often hiding them in olive oil processing plants or farm buildings.

Trabelsi, speaking May 23 at a news conference, wondered whether French authorities would allow such a religious gathering in France in view of the incidents targeting Jews in recent years there.

Asked whether he counted himself as Arab and Jewish, he answered that he did.

“Living together” is the political message that Tunisian authorities wish to send to the world. This is a message that many do not seem interested in. The growing beat of boots on the ground in the region makes the message of Tunisia all but inaudible, as illustrated by the small number of Western media reporting on the pilgrimage. In the hotels, foreign tourists were largely unaware of the pilgrimage.

Most visitors to Tunisia and some of the rabbis at the pilgrimage said they were surprised to hear of the behaviour of Muslims during the second world war. They were nonplussed when reminded that the Holocaust was enacted by Christians, amid the deafening silence of many rulers at the time.

Tunisians, as did Algerians and Moroccans, treated the Jews as fellow human beings, which was not the case of millions of Europeans. This is to the North Africans’ eternal credit.

There is no Tunisian name on the memorial to the Shoah, the Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, however. The pretext for refusing to inscribe the names of brave Tunisian Muslims being that the Tunisians were not risking their lives while protecting Jews. This is a historical lie that does little credit to Israel. The Jews, of all people, should know that falsifying history is a dangerous game.

Trabelsi expressed confidence that the number of tourists who visited Tunisia would continue to grow since the sector’s collapse in 2015-16 and noted that Russian tourism had grown from zero to 725,000 in four years.

Tunisia remains an expensive destination because Tunisair treats its passengers with high prices and frequent cancellations. Tunisia is in negotiation over an Open Skies Agreement with the European Union. The agreement, which is yet to be ratified, excludes Tunis-Carthage International Airport, the main point of entry into the country, for five years.

The various attractions that Djerba offers, besides the unique Jewish traditions and places of worship, showcase the many assets that could help Tunisia’s tourism escape the low-cost trap. There is no reason Tunisia earns a fraction of what Morocco does for every foreign visitor.

During the pilgrimage, the media and invited rabbis were treated to extracts of a film on the history of the architecture of synagogues aired on French-German Arte television channel by film-maker Celia Lowenstein. It is a superb documentary of the central role of synagogues in Jewish life and history, at times pure poetry. Tunisian authorities seemed unaware that the film on El Ghriba had been selected in major North American film festivals.

As this year’s Jewish pilgrimage coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Muslims, Jews and European visitors were treated to an iftar dinner. Another illustration of Tunisia’s tradition of tolerance that many in today’s world would gain to discover and that Tunisian authorities would be well served to better spotlight.